II. Can You Dance To Pearl Jam?

I first heard "Alive" by Pearl Jam sitting on the couch watching MTV. It was in late 1991 and I was unimpressed. It was very raw and they were a group of long-haired, grungy looking guys jumping around the stage in an almost silly way. Or so I thought. I'm usually slow to know when something is great Rock and Roll. I had the same reaction to Nirvana a month earlier when "Smells Like Teen Spirit" debuted on MTV. I didn’t get it. Pearl Jam was particularly untuneful to me. I didn't catch that fantastic, defiant and yet hopeful chorus until much later. But a few weeks into it, I did catch the tune and it has stuck ever since. At first, the guy in the Michael Jordan shirt with the very long hair, swinging from the rafters with that manic look in his eyes annoyed me…Or should I say, he made me uncomfortable. Oh, that's right…that's Rock and Roll. That initial discomfort plays a big part. Elvis Presley made lots of people uncomfortable when he first appeared. The Beatles must have freaked out whole nations when they came off the plane. The Rolling Stones still make everybody uncomfortable. The discomfort I felt watching Eddie Vedder pursue his wild dream turned quickly into a sense of identification, respect and admiration. This guy was serious. He had something to say and the voice that came out of his head was going to make me listen. And listen. And listen. Real good band behind him, too.

They were pretty subversive, this Pearl Jam. They didn't hit you right away with their melodies. They were sort of hidden in the swirling rhythm section and the dual barrage of guitar frenzy, all thick Gibson Les Paul rhythm (from Stone) and slippery, Fender Strat lead (from Mike). Yes, there was a great deal of Jimi Hendrix filtering through those guitar solos. It was one of the first things that grabbed me about them. Coming out of the late '80's where rock guitar was all flash and hairspray and all these fast fingers with no soul, a Hendrix-like approach seemed fresh. This Mike McCready was a strong guitar player. And his playing, like Eddie's singing and the ensemble playing of the band, was pretty damn subversive in that at first, it seemed like they were doing a kind of Led Zeppelin thing. There was that bit of Hendrix in the guitar vocabulary, and Eddie was somewhere between Roger Daltrey, Bruce Springsteen and Bono…the derivatives are all present. But then, suddenly, Pearl Jam was not any of those things. They were their own thing. You hear Pearl Jam and you know it's them. You hear Eddie and you know it's Eddie. And the more you listen, the more the melodies grab you and the rhythmic force of the band is ecstatic and pulverizing. It makes your heart race. It makes you drive the car faster.

Yes, I have danced to Pearl Jam. Their music is funky in a funny kind of way. The early radio smashes from their startling debut album Ten all have funky beats hidden beneath the raw, grungy attitude flowing over the top. "Evenflow," "Alive’" "Jeremy," "Why Go?," all of them bounce along. The other thing that’s interesting about Pearl Jam is that they've had so many different drummers and yet, always the rhythm section remains Pearl Jam. Led Zeppelin does not exist without John Bonham on drums. The Who were never the same after Keith Moon and you can bet the Rolling Stones would finally, at long last, stop rolling if Charlie Watts called it a day. The reason Nirvana is one of the great rock bands is Dave Grohl. And yet Pearl Jam has had five drummers! I don't know why this is the case, but it has never diminished the power or identity of their rhythm section, a compliment to bassist Jeff Ament, who powers the machine along. Chris Cornell once said Pearl Jam had the most distinguishable rhythm section in Rock and Roll since The Police. This is no small accomplishment, given how late in the story these guys appeared. You'd think by the 1990s, there'd be nothing new to create in Rock and Roll after almost forty years of banging! But the form remains vital if you mean it and these guys do.

The first Pearl Jam album is now already somewhat of a classic. It is to '90's rock radio what Who's Next or Led Zeppelin's fourth album were to '70's rock radio: a collection of songs that can all be played there. It's like a greatest hits album. They hit it immediately, something rare in Rock and Roll. Most definitive album statements come third, fourth or fifth in an artist's career, but not with these guys. This may be a reflection of the awful conditions in the music industry in the late '80's and early '90's, where an artist had to break out on the first go or they'd be forgotten in the rush of ever more new information…There's a billion bands out there. If you don't like this band, turn on the TV or the computer and there's a billion other ones. Whatever. In the golden age of Rock and Roll, a great band had longevity, could release many albums in succession to an audience that was willing to accept it, live with it and get into it. That's one of the best things about Rock and Roll. Learning to love the new album! It might take awhile, but hang in there! That's the point. Led Zeppelin III? What the hell was that? What were they doing? Who did they think they were? Artists? The third Led Zeppelin album was so weird that the fourth album (eventually their biggest seller) only peaked at Number 2 in the states instead of their usual Number 1 position because everyone was so freaked out and put off by the third one. Oh, the irony. Pearl Jam would jump into this frame of mind with their "difficult" fourth album, No Code. And good for them. I did not "get" that album initially. But you know what? It's great. It's Pearl Jam. They're redefining. That's the whole point. Grow yourself, Ed. Move forward. I'm right there with you.

Anyway, Ten is a masterpiece. Coming out of the poseur debacle that was the late '80's, it was pretty revolutionary. And this goes for Nirvana, Soundgarden and the totally out-of-their-heads Red Hot Chili Peppers also. All these great bands, who would have thought? The early '90's was a watershed in Rock and Roll history. These guys grew up on Led Zeppelin and punk music and look what happened. It was an exciting time for a Rock and Roll kid. You know an album is great when its more artistic second half is filled with music that creates a fan base all by itself. Most Pearl Jam fans probably like "Porch," "Garden," "Deep" and "Release" as much if not more than the 'hits' on the first side. Ten rolls all the way through. It's a heavy rock album. It's an exorcism too; Eddie's got a lot he's dealing with, right up close and personal. It's pretty scary. There ain't nothing safe or calm about "Once," "Black" or "Jeremy." It's the same as The Who By Numbers album, or Darkness On The Edge Of Town by Bruce Springsteen. Records dealing with intense emotional issues. And yet, you can dance to all of them. Here's Eddie telling you straight out that the bastard he's been living with his whole life, who he thinks is his father, is just a prop of a man that his mother got together with out of hard necessity and that his real father, who he's never known, is now long dead. And the kicker is that his mom, who has just told him this crazy truth, sees his father when she looks at Ed. So there's this uncomfortable sexual tension between Ed and his mom, and this incredible sense of loss and estrangement concerning his dad. And all he can muster to say is that he's the one who’s still alive. And what is that then, to still be alive? Is it just a curse upon him? A punishment? It's conflicting in the face of the tragedy of his father and mother, of his lost childhood at the hands of a man he must have hated, and yet, it is also a cry of perseverance and defiance. "I'm still alive!" he shouts to the sky or to his mother or his teachers or whoever… He's a survivor and he's here to tell you about it. And through the confession, the naked honesty and the physical, cathartic power of the band supporting him, there is a soul cleansing and an re-affirmation of life. It's Rock and Roll. And the whole album is like that. It's a great feeling knowing Eddie Vedder cares so much. It's life or death for him, just like Bruce or Pete Townshend or Bono. Everything depends on it.

It was in this cataclysmic exorcism of demons and deep personal pain that Pearl Jam became the most popular rock band in the world in 1992. At the height of their popularity, they were rolling creatively and in the rush of excitement, released their excellent second album, Vs. This record is the sound of a band simultaneously intoxicated by and painfully uncomfortable with their newfound recognition. The glow of superstardom informs many great records. It's an interesting thing that happens to an artist when they achieve gigantic popularity. They freak out. And the ensuing album reflects this. But it's a cool thing because the album is made from a heightened creative sense of self. Led Zeppelin’s Houses Of The Holy is a good example of this. Also see Around The World In A Day by Prince or Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness by The Smashing Pumpkins. Highly colorful and creative works.

Vs. is a hammerhead of a record from the moment it crashes into existence with the volcanic "Go". Pearl Jam's here to stay, folks, is what I got off it upon first hearing, and yes, I was one of the million or so who bought it that first week out. It was, like all great moments at the record store, an exciting purchase. Eddie had changed some since the first record. He'd been all over the world promoting the Ten album, he'd played many shows to a lot of people who were getting what he was doing. And although he came off against superstardom, it must have excited him to be making such intimate contact. His singing was more confident here, more sure of his persona. And man, was he pissed off.

The overriding theme of Vs. is abuse. And it is scary stuff, up close. The brilliance of Eddie, like his hero, Pete Townshend, however, is that he's not backing down. And if you don't turn this record off right now, you're going to hear it in all its raw and unflinching brutality. It's Rock and Roll to the extreme limit of expression. "Suppose I abused you…Just passing it on." In one line, he sums up the entire tragedy of wife or child, or even self abuse. I remember reading soon after that Axl Rose loved Pearl Jam. "Animal" is a fiery sequel to the first record in the "Evenflow" vein and features outstanding ensemble playing from the band and a savage vocal from Ed. "Why would you…want to hurt me?…So frightened of your face." This is a guy who cuts right to the heart of it. And then he gives you "Daughter," one of the staples of '90's rock radio. In 1993, this song made listening to the radio fun again. And you couldn't hear it on MTV either. Here was a band that at the height of their popularity, refused to make a video. That's a revolution in your backyard. What a concept. It sure sounds good on the radio, though. You can see it in your mind for what you think it means. Who'd have thought? Oh yeah, the song comes first. Not the video. Not the image. They're a principled lot, this Pearl Jam. And a great rock band. It's also of worth to note that on "Daughter" and many other Pearl Jam songs, Eddie Vedder takes the narrative voice of a female character, a beautiful poetic device. Michael Stipe and Joni Mitchell are also prone to doing this gender switch to great emotional effect. He is a feminist, no doubt, among other things. He is a champion of the woman. How subversive. You mean he doesn't want to just screw them after the show? You mean he really identifies with them and wants to express the personal plight of the woman in an abusive, male-dominated world? You're so damn refreshing, Ed. I'm grateful you came along. "Glorified G" shows the band in top form with third drummer Dave Abbruzzese pounding away with controlled intensity. I like his drumming and was confused by his dismissal from the band. Must have rubbed Ed the wrong way with those post-success drum endorsements. Whatever went down, his drumming on Vs. and the subsequent Vitalogy album is exceptional.

The two highpoints of Vs. represent the two poles of the record and of the band. "elderlywomanbehindthecounterinasmalltown" is proof that Pearl Jam is one of the great bands. It might have been the song of the '90's, a piece of forgotten poetry so empathetic and deep in feeling, I'm still moved after hundreds of listens. It is the sound of the highway running through a small town, where people have lived their entire lives and never gone anywhere else, where one person who did get out, gets off the highway and stops, returning now just for a moment. The woman behind the counter recognizes him or her and comes face to face with her own fate. Here is where she's been and here is where she will stay. She knows the yearning for another life, another experience. She knows the want of it and it aches in her. She cannot even say hello, so caught up in her emotions, but she wants to scream it. She's caught in her life. Lots of people are. And then, if you're lucky, you live to be an old person and you have a life of fading memories to look back on. Then, you fade away with them. The title of this incredible piece is brilliant in that its like the title a painting would have. It's a great painting of a small subject. The best kind. Like Bruce Springsteen does so well, Eddie looks with empathy and respect upon the everyday people that make up small towns everywhere. He captures the bigness and smallness of life so well. The best of Rock and Roll music always has.

On the flip side of "elderlywoman" is "Leash", a song as purely Rock and Roll as music ever gets. It's loud, brimming with controlled tension, sounds great, you can move to it, and it's an outright, unabashed celebration of being young. But it's even better than that, because it's real. It's not pie in the sky, everything's wonderful, isn't it great to be young? Oh no. Things aren't so easy when you're young, or even that fun for that matter, and the parents and other figures of authority are coming down hard tonight. But inside the community of Rock and Roll, there is release and catharsis and a pledge of loyalty among friends. "Troubled souls unite! We've got ourselves tonight!" he shouts in a cry of defiant redemption and I believe him. "I am fuel, you are friends. We got the means to make amends." No one in Rock and Roll has ever used the word "fuck" to greater effect than Eddie Vedder. When he says, "Drop the leash, drop the leash. Get out of my fuckin' face!," it's as wild, cool and defiant as the form has ever gotten. When he sings "Delight! Delight in our youth!" and lets out a mighty scream of pain and joy, it's all over but the shouting. This is a great band. Great in the way The Who were great. It's the moment, we are young, let's transcend the boundaries of our lives. And yes, you can dance to it, too.

In April 1994, Kurt Cobain died. He had been an open critic of Pearl Jam, saying they were fakers and just playing the corporate rock game to get what they wanted out of a career. They were a sell-out and had jumped on the grunge bandwagon, riding it to superstardom and selling even more records than Nirvana in the process. Kurt had proved once and for all that he was the real thing, having made In Utero, the most vitriolic, difficult music of his all-too-short career in the face of the gigantic, almost messianic-like adulation he found himself wrestling with. Half of In Utero is pure noise. He recorded an acoustic show in New York with Nirvana for MTV Unplugged in the middle of the In Utero tour, playing naked and soulful for all the young, head-banging members of the moshpit to see, and then, after trying to get it done with in Spain and failing, reportedly blew his brains out in Seattle after walking out of the last drug rehab program he had entered. He was 27 and his death loomed large. His criticism of Pearl Jam must have been especially hard on Eddie Vedder, a principled and committed artist and musician who was going through a similarly surreal experience with his out of control popularity. There were many moments where a Pearl Jam fan might have feared that Ed would decide to take a similar route out. But he did not. Instead, he and his band made Vitalogy, a record about the study and sustaining of life.

He couldn't have made a better creative decision. Vitalogy is an difficult record itself, featuring its fair share of noise, upheaval, and dissonance. But it also is a record of hope and perseverance in the face of adversity, a theme central to Pearl Jam. Again, Ed is a survivor, like Pete Townshend, and he's fighting all the way. Vitalogy lacks the overall cohesive power of the first two records, it's more rambling and less focused, but it’s still a strong statement. You've got to stretch out and try other things once you’ve climbed the mountain. Ed plays accordion and sings out of key on a song called "Bugs" which is about the same thing his previous song on Vs., "Rats" is about. There is a rambling psychobabble of a thing at the end of the record called something like "Mophandlemama" which is just plain strange, although poignant also, having something to do with suicide, I think. It's out there and uncomfortable to listen to. Kinda like what "Revolution 9" might have sounded like to a nation or two of Beatlefans not knowing what to expect. But again, experiments are of worth because they show the artist working through something, looking for some other expression. Usually, besides the fact they're weird or self-indulgent, they are also interesting documents of a moment in the artist's development.

Other than these slight detours, the machine is firing cleanly and running well through a cycle of songs about death, dysfunction, alienation, and the feeling of entrapment inside a broken family ("Last Exit," "Tremor Christ," and "Nothingman"). Elsewhere, there is a song of love and fandom to vinyl records and the joy of placing a turntable needle down on one of them ("Spin The Black Circle"), a proclamation of love and loyalty to a significant other in the face of lusty interest from other presumably buxom parties ("Satan's Bed"), and another bona fide Pearl Jam classic in Eddie's "Better Man." Again, he's writing with empathy for a woman stuck in a life she has no control over and no way out of. Perhaps about his mother and told from the perspective of a watchful, helpless son, it's a heartbreakingly compassionate piece of music. She's married to a man she knows is not treating her well, and yet she cannot leave him. He doesn't come in until four o'clock in the morning and she is left to lie there alone on their bed and wonder where he is and what he's doing. She practices the speech she plans to give him, the truths she will communicate to him, the freedom she will demand, and then, when he finally does come in, she rolls over and pretends to sleep, surrendering to fear. She's afraid to leave, she doesn't believe she can find better. It paralyzes her and she winds up just making him another dinner, like she has countless nights before and like she will for seemingly countless nights to come. And her son is watching this. It is the plight of many a woman to be bound to a weak, abusive man. Hardly ever has an artist so popular portrayed such deep wounds so unflinchingly. The great ones always do. Lennon, Townshend, Springsteen, the fantastic Rickie Lee Jones… All have great pain in their music and do not look away. Behind Ed is a great band that rallies with him to an emotional climax and catharsis and again, the soul is cleansed from the sharing of the experience. Within the communal power of the music, a true feeling and a propulsive beat create a transcendence that lifts and nourishes the body and spirit.

Vitalogy is a triumph in that it stands in the face of adversity and death and champions life and the primal will to survive. It is also a success because it features Eddie Vedder's purest outcry for community through Rock and Roll, the powerful "Corduroy." This is Eddie's singular defining moment as an artist. It might also be so for his band from how passionately they perform the song. Pearl Jam had become superstars and were labeled hypocrites by the artist who had paved the way for their success; they had watched him die at the hands of forces he could not control and faced an unstable future in the shadow of the same dangers; they had achieved intense, intimate contact with a giant number of fans and yet felt alienated and betraying of their initial principles as a grass roots punk rock band. Eddie Vedder wanted to be in a rock band and maybe sell 20,000 copies of his first record. Build it slowly, make something real of it. It went off like a bomb in his hands and Pearl Jam sold nearly 20 million copies of their first two records. And then Kurt Cobain died under the strain of the same success. Ed was left standing alone in the sweepstakes, an unlikely and unwilling contestant. So he wrote "Corduroy" about where he was and again, succeeded in expressing his plight. "Everything has changed! Absolutely nothing's changed." He was a superstar, a spokesman, and still a loner pumping gas somewhere daydreaming about The Who and The Clash. The contact he had made seemed to not ring true for him. Idol worship was never what he was after. Bruce Springsteen suffered the same dilemma. They want to belong, these great artists, to be one of us. They don't want to be idols. They strive for community and then find it, but in a twisted, surreal way. "Oh it's supposed to be just fun…To live and die, let it be done…I figure I'll be damned…All alone like I began." He began an unknown, a loner and will end up the same way because he knows fame is fleeting and unreal. The connection he's made doesn't hold up for him and he is heartbroken from the realization. This is the moment where Eddie Vedder stops playing the game. "I can't be what you want because I'm…" and with that, he and his bandmates effectively check out of the Hotel California because if they don't, they're not going to make it. They want to be in it for the long haul and this over-adulation thing is screwing with their souls big time.

So, Pearl Jam took on Ticketmaster over the high prices of tickets to their shows and waged a principled and well-intended battle that was destined to fail, but after the dust cleared, the band was left standing well-respected for their efforts and beliefs. A great live band, they were tired of having their true fans overpay to see them play. The battle achieved something else for Eddie Vedder other than gaining him the respect he deserved: It slowed down the machine. It took the hurricane out of the sails and Pearl Jam were allowed to take some time to regroup. By the time No Code was released, only their die-hard fans were really interested anymore, given the sorry speed at which young people at the end of the 20th century gave up on rock bands. Sell the CDs back to the store, they're totally disposable after all. The attention span of a young music listener is lamentably next to nothing. We can thank MTV and the Internet for that. Information Overload is here to stay. It seems to have saved Pearl Jam, however, and allowed them to survive their crazy moment and live to make more records, forging a career based on the paths of perennials like Neil Young or Bruce Springsteen. Put out a solid record, play great shows in support of it, and repeat the process as long as you can. Does that mean they won't make a record that's hard to get into? No. Binaural and Riot Act are proof of that. But if you hang in there long enough, the power and worth of Pearl Jam prove out. Like Neil Young said, "Long may you run." Long may you run, indeed, Eddie and company, and thank you very much for the Live Bootlegs, too. You're as close to The Who as the 90's got.